Thursday, 27 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 6)

Faith teaches us morality/without faith there can be no morals

The idea that morality is not possible without religion is so obviously untrue that it would be laughable if the consequences of the lie weren’t so serious. If one actually looks at the evidence the implication is almost that reverse is true. Mark Twain once said "The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive...but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anaesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition." And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the barbarity committed by the religious, not just in the name of their faith, but because of it. If you look at violent-crime rate figures worldwide and correlate them with religiosity it becomes clear that the non-believers are a much more peaceful bunch than the supernaturally credulous. The same is true if this correlation is made by US state, rather than nations. It seems clear that the more religious a group becomes, the greater it’s propensity for bloodshed. The problem here is that the holy books of the three major abrahamic religions teach barbarity and inhuman acts on a grand scale. They are littered with the depiction and glorification of genocide, incest, slavery, rape and murder, not just witnessed by god or done in his name, but ordered and required by him. Against this background, people of reason have had to fight to gain laws that reflect morality that is obvious to them, but proscribed by biblical law, for the last few thousand years. As Bertrand Russell pointed out “the moral objection [to religion] is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow.” The very fact that people today are more moral than the holy books describe and prescribe should be evidence enough that it is people themselves who determine morality and not their faith. The Bible is unequivocal in its support for slavery, even the supposedly gentle Jesus was OK with it as long as you didn’t beat them so hard you knocked out their teeth and eyes or killed them on the spot (Luke 12:47). He also said that children should be put to death for swearing at their parents (Matthew 15:4-7) though, so why should we look to him for guidance? It should be clear that our modern sense of morals is neither derived from these writings nor should be. Even the most seemingly innocuous of Jesus’ teachings are can be shown to be immoral if one actually takes the time to think about it. Take loving thy enemies and turning the other cheek. Love thy Enemies? Why? Why Should I love people who want to kill me, my family and friends? Standing by and doing nothing while the evil commit evil acts it is within your power to prevent is an evil act itself. There are Christians who say that we can safely disregard the Old Testament as having been written for a different age when times were hard and barbarity was the norm. Though this is questionable in itself, if it is true we are still left with the assumption that the teachings of Jesus in the new testament are the pinnacle of morality and still relevant today. It is apparent from the examples above alone that this is not the case, and they’re not the only instances. Jesus, if indeed he existed, clearly had some very progressive thinking, for his time and place, but he has little to tell us today. Indeed he would have had little if anything to tell the Greek philosophers who predated him.

The facts are that Children demonstrate concern for the wellbeing of others long before they learn to read or are old enough to understand indoctrination from their parents. From this alone it should be clear that the roots of morality are innate. Many “lower” primates have complex systems of morality and justice: reward for good behaviour and punishment for bad, and I can’t recall ever having seen a monkey reading the Torah.

Christopher Hitchens, on his US tour in support of his latest book “God is not Great : How religion poisons everything.” challenges his audiences to come up with one single moral statement made by the faithful that could not easily have been spoken by the secular. Nobody has yet managed it, which surprises me as I can think of a few. How about “Abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to peace in the world today”? An idiotic statement made by Mother Theresa when accepting her ill-gotten Nobel peace prize. OK, maybe it could have been said by an atheist, but it would have to have been a really stupid one.

There are moral atheists, no question. Ask youself, who is the more moral, someone who does the right thing because they believe it to be right, or someone who does it because they believe their god wants it and will punish them if they don’t? Doing things out of fear of retribution or promise of payback isn’t morality, it is cowardice and avarice.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 5)

You lose nothing by having faith, but stand to gain everything.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal attempted to apply the science of decision theory to the choice of whether to believe in god and came up with the argument now known as Pascal’s Wager (or Gambit), which I shall paraphrase here:

God either exists or he doesn’t. It is not possible for man to know for certain whether god exists or not, and we are already in the game of life so we are forced to bet on one possibility or the other. So we must play the odds against the benefits. If god exists, the benefits for believing are infinite, and the penalty for not believing is severe. If god does not exist and you believe you have lost nothing. Therefore it is prudent to believe.

I’ve heard variants of this argument used by several people, some of whom were unaware that Pascal had got there before them, or that it is easily refuted. There are several problems with Pascal’s wager. Firstly, the premise that it is not possible to know for certain whether god exists or not. This is by no means proven; just because no one has yet proven the existence or non-existence of a divine creator does not mean it is not possible to do so. However, this is the least of our disagreements with Pascal, since if this premise were replaced with “We do not currently know for certain the status of god’s existence.” we could continue reasoning from there. The major problems with the logic are the assumption of unspoken presuppositions, the first of which is unfounded unless we already believe the bible to be true, and the second is just plain wrong even if we do:

· God (if he exists) values and rewards belief, and punishes non-belief.

· Belief in god costs nothing.

Let’s examine each in turn.

God (if he exists) values and rewards belief and punishes non-belief.

If we are starting from the position where we are uncertain about the existence of god, there is no reason to suppose any of his characteristics. In order to believe this statement, we must already believe that the bible is the true and inerrant word of god, thus leading us back to our old friend the circular argument. Suppose we instead assume that god values moral actions and rewards or punishes accordingly regardless of belief in him. You might then think that those who act upon a morality arrived in a rational manner unfettered by barbaric bronze-age or medieval thinking are more likely to enter the kingdom of heaven than those who adhere to the doctrines present in so-called holy books written in antiquity. This kind of thinking has arrived at the Atheist’s Wager:

You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him.

My favourite question to ask those who assert that faith in god is a requirement for entry into heaven goes something like this: “If your god is genuinely benevolent, would he deny heaven to a man who had followed all of his rules but did not believe in him, but permit it to someone who murdered and raped but had been absolved through Jesus on his deathbed.” Often with the addition of “If he would he’s a fucking petty-minded shit-head.”

Belief in God costs Nothing

This is patently nonsense. Many churches demand tithes, donations etc. even if they don’t, most belief systems demand at the very least that time and effort are spent in devotion. The problem is that if the non-believers are right, and there is no after life, and we’ve spent this one slaughtering goats in order to fix broken aeroplanes, or waiting for a child-molester in a frock to put a wafer he believes to be the flesh of his dead god in our mouths, we’ve wasted a portion of the only life we’ve got. We would have paid a significant price for our unwarranted credulity. Not least because that time we’ve wasted could have been spent doing something that is actually beneficial for mankind. Even staying at home and melting our brain by watching execrable drivel like the x-factor or big brother would probably be more productive; at least it wouldn’t be in support of organisations who teach pernicious falsehoods that cause genuine harm.

There are a couple of other problems with Pascal’s Wager, and they both hinge around the potential consequences of us agreeing with Pascal and deciding to believe in god. First, if we decide to believe in god, we have the question of which of the many permutations of faith should we subscribe to. Since we’re playing odds games, if we pick any one, due to sheer number of religions available to us our odds of being wrong are enormous. I can see the scene at the pearly gates (or local equivalent) “Ah fuck, the mormons had it right? That shit with the gold tablets being dug up in upstate New York just seemed too incredible.” Or maybe “Shinto? You’re shitting me right?!”

Second if we don’t believe and we take the bet and decide that we should, it’s simply not possible to suddenly make ourselves believe something we don’t, and believe me I’ve tried. If we are starting from unbelief, we need to reason something out or have it proved in order to start believing it. Of course we could say “well, I don’t really believe, but I’ll go through the motions for the possibility of eternity in paradise”, but if god is omniscient, and rewards belief, do we really think he’ll fall for that? Christopher Hitchens has prepared his response to god should he confront him about his lack of faith after his death: “I presume, divine sir, that you have some respect for intellectual honesty and to moral courage and that you would look with more favour on somebody who made an honest profession of unbelief than on someone who acceded to belief in you in the hope of a handout.” Terry Pratchett offers us a slightly more humorous illustration. In his novel the Hogfather, a man reasons out the potential risks and benefits in a manner very similar to Pascal’s wager and decides that he should therefore believe in the existence of the gods: “When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said ‘We're going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts...’”

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 4)

My faith gives me great comfort.

My pants give me great comfort, but I'm not going to make supernatural claims based on that fact, and at least they definitely exist. In the words of Sam Harris, "before we examine the validity of this claim, it's worth noting that it's a total non-sequitur"; the amount of comfort or sense of wellbeing afforded someone by a given article of faith has no relevance on the truth-value of that claim. This type of logical fallacy is called argumentum as consequentum : Appeal to Consequences or wishful thinking. Sam gives the example of his imaginary belief that there is a giant diamond buried in his back-yard. He states that he would be laughed at and thought a lunatic if he started making statements like “It gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing to believe that there is an enormous diamond buried in my back yard.”, “I wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t an enormous diamond buried in my back yard, it gives my life meaning.” None of these statements give us any inclination to take the existence of such a gem seriously, yet somehow we are expected to refrain from laughing hysterically when the faithful use these kinds of phrases about their equally unfounded claims. If there is a reason we ought not to laugh it is not that we should respect faith, but that what they are really saying is “Please stop highlighting my misconceptions, it hurts.” We should be sympathetic to this since it will not help us free them from their delusion if we inflict unnecessary discomfort, but this should not signal an end to the discussion. Sometimes a little pain is necessary for progress.

Having established that the truth of the statement “My faith gives me great comfort” has no bearing on whether the object of faith is true, let’s have a look at the premise itself. Well clearly it is in many cases, people do derive comfort from the ideas that they will never die, and neither will their beloved friends and family, that all will live in bliss in paradise for eternity, that their prayers for their loved ones and the world at large are having some positive impact etc. Unfortunately, given the lack of evidence for these suppositions, their positive affect on mental state is nothing more than the placebo effect in action. Additionally, I hypothesize that to a large degree the need for this comfort is brought about only because of the pre-existence of the faith. Like the smoker for whom a cigarette buys temporary respite from the pangs of withdrawal that would not be present were he not a smoker, much of the distress people of faith find themselves in need of alleviation from is brought about by having been taught falsehoods such as that they are born in sin for which they must atone, or that they or their loved ones will go to hell for failing to believe (the argument ad baculum : appeal to force). People are taught to feel guilt for harmless actions, often perfectly natural, sometimes even biologically unavoidable ones. This guilt can only be assuaged by prayer, or confession, or other such wastes of effort that could otherwise be used doing something genuinely beneficial. The Catholic Church even used to allow people to pay cash to buy-off their sins with cash to make themselves feel better; these days many churches ask their congregations to pay tithes for the same reason.

Even if it is true that faith gives comfort, it's worth noting that taking morphine or laudanum would probably make you feel much more relaxed about your place in the world too, but I don't think anyone sensible is going to advocate that as a viable long term solution.

In addition to all this, the argument that you have a right to something or that it is beneficial to mankind because it brings you personal comfort is not good enough. Giving support to organisations that do evil deeds or preach that they should be done, because it makes you feel better is clearly an immoral act, and should be discouraged whenever possible. After all, we would not listen politely to people who say “I like punching people in the face, it makes me feel better about myself and my place in the world.” Or maybe we would, but only out of fear that they may punch us in the face.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 3)

3) It’s impolite to discuss religion in polite company.

Oh fuck off!

Why is it? Because the faithful made up that rule so that people couldn’t criticise them. This isn’t an argument for faith, it’s a (lame) reason to stop talking about it. The late lamented Douglas Adams (God rest his soul ;)) had some useful stuff to say on this matter, and he’s funnier than me so I’ll hand this post over to him:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? — because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.

The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking 'Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?' but I wouldn't have thought 'Maybe there's somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics' when I was making the other points. I just think 'Fine, we have different opinions'. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody's (I'm going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say 'No, we don't attack that; that's an irrational belief but no, we respect it'.

It's rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that's grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that's a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think 'Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity', what does it mean? Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that's holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so? There's no other reason at all, it's just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it's very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard [Dawkins] creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.”

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 2)

2) Faith is a virtue.

No it isn't. It might be one of the so called "Christian Virtues" (Faith, Hope and Charity/Love/Agape – 1 Corinthians 13:13) but we might only believe this is genuinely a virtue if we have faith that the bible is true. "I have faith that the bible is true, and the bible tells me faith is a virtue ipso facto, QED". All major religions have some article of scripture lauding faith, and all only stand up if you already have faith in the truth of those documents. This kind of circular reasoning gets us nowhere, and the name for this logical fallacy is petitio principii: begging the question. To paraphrase Sam Harris, how virtuous has Islam’s doctrine of martyrdom been shown to be recently? Or the Catholic insistence on the tenets that condoms and abortion are evil? Or the Christian teaching that sodomy is an abomination? These beliefs, and a multitude of other grievous lies, can only be interpreted as virtuous by those who already buy-in to the delusion that their holy book is the inerrant word of god, and that their interpretation is the only possible correct one.

Until faith can be demonstrated to have positive effects that outweigh its negative ones, despite the evidence to the contrary, we should fall back to the default position and assume that all such propositions are false.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Faith! What is it good for? (pt. 1)

1) You can't disprove my article of faith, therefore it's as valid as any claim you might make.

No, no it's not... really. I think Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot argument dealt with this one adequately, as do the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Pink Unicorn etc. In case you haven't heard of any of these, they all essentially hinge around highlighting the fallacy of the following hypothesis: if I believe something, no matter how ludicrous, that cannot be disproved, it is therefore valid, worthy of my continued attention and not open to ridicule. Of course in actuality just because something might be true, this gives us no reason to believe that it is, particularly if there is not one single shred of actual concrete evidence that might allude to its truth. If it's extremely unlikely to be true, it's best for everyone if we just assume that it's false and behave accordingly; the burden of proof is on the holder of the faith, not on the rest of us. As Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. In fact if the person of faith were to go as far as to assert that their article of faith were definitely true because there is no proof to the contrary, we find there is a name for that logical fallacy: argumentum ad ignorantiam : the argument from ignorance. Of course, another aspect of the argument from ignorance would be an argument that an article of faith is proven false by the absence of proof that it is true. Anyone who can think clearly would not use such an argument alone to suggest that someone's faith is unfounded, and nor need they for there are plenty of others available. The simple fact of the matter is, if you have no proof for something and it is extremely unlikely, I have no reason to take any suggestions arrived at as a result of your faith seriously or show them any respect.

"What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." - Christopher Hitchens

Friday, 21 September 2007

Faith! HUH! Good god y'all. What is it good for? (intro)

erm, well, ah, almost nothing. Say it again. OWWWW!

OK, so before I can start talking about what faith is good for, I guess I need to define what it is, or at least how I'm using it in this context. Let's have a look at

faith –noun

1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.

2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.

4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.

5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

6. the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.: Failure to appear would be breaking faith.

7. the observance of this obligation; fidelity to one's promise, oath, allegiance, etc.: He was the only one who proved his faith during our recent troubles.

8. Christian Theology. the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved. —Idiom

9. in faith, in truth; indeed: In faith, he is a fine lad.

I'm talking about definitions 2, 3, 5 and 8, with maybe a smattering of 4.

I might even add a definition of my own that I think is probably omitted because it's supposed to be impolite to question someone's faith.

10. Belief that is in spite of the, often overwhelming, evidence to the contrary. AKA the "LALALALA, I'm not listening." defence.

There are plenty of arguments for it, not many of them valid. What follows is my attempt at deconstructing the major ones I've heard. Note that I’m not refuting arguments for why people have faith (check out Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained for that), I’m refuting arguments that people give for their faith; these two are not the same thing.